Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The three candidates vying to represent Montana's restored western congressional district squared off in a debate in Missoula on Monday, and the difference between each became clear from their opening remarks.

Republican Ryan Zinke, Democrat Monica Tranel and Libertarian John Lamb all believe change is necessary and that civility – and honesty – can be restored in American politics.

But they varied on their views over energy, gun safety, housing and abortion, and what they would do to protect a woman's right to choose. The opening question set a fiery tone to the debate.

The event was hosted by City Club Missoula.

Democrat Monica Tranel.
Democrat Monica Tranel.

“Abortion is something I've been totally against my whole life,” said Lamb. “It's against my moral and religious background, so I would definitely vote against abortion. As for the federal government, I don't believe it should be involved in our life. But I would definitely vote against abortion.”

Tranel was unequivocal with her reply saying she would, without question, defend a woman's right to make her own healthcare decisions. She described her opponents as extremists on the issue.

“I will vote for women's rights to live life on our terms and chose how, when and where we become parents,” Tranel said. “In the years my opponent (Zinke) was in the state Legislature, in a majority, and in federal Congress, in a majority, they did nothing to help our families. They did nothing for contraceptive care. We know how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.”

Zinke said he was pro-life but added that “life wasn't perfect,” citing instances of rape, incest and when a woman's health is at risk. An outright ban on abortion was too harsh, he said, but he doesn't believe late-term abortions should be legal.

“I believe in providing to make sure we get ahead of the problem, so we don't have it,” Zinke said. “When I was in the state Legislature, I did defend a woman's right for birth control. I'm a father and I'm also a husband and in our family, we understand the issue. I've never voted against a woman's right to make sure she can save herself on these medical conditions.”

Both Tranel and Zinke debated sharply on a number of issues and challenged each other at several points, including the topic of gun legislation and energy.

Tranel said Montana was poised to capitalize on the new energy economy with its abundant wind and solar capabilities. She said she'd end fossil fuel subsidies on public lands and work to see the state outsource its wind energy and monetize its grid.

“The energy transition is underway across the world,” Tranel said. “We need to understand what the future actually looks like and how we get there. Montana has tremendous natural resources, and we have a history of using our resources to make money for us and for the good of the country.”

Republican Ryan Zinke.
Republican Ryan Zinke.

Zinke countered, saying fossil fuels would likely be necessary for another 50 years to provide reliable energy to fuel manufacturing and the economy as a whole. Batteries and solar cells aren't getting recycled, and one transition leads to new challenges, he said.

“If this is a new economy, I don't think we want any part of it,” Zinke said. “It's better to produce energy in our own country under our own regulations than watch it get produced overseas with no regulation. American energy – all of the above – does it better and more efficiently by far.”

Lamb said the government isn't the solution to the nation's energy future, and on the issue of guns, he said it was a “God-given right,” not just a constitutional right.

Zinke defended the Second Amendment as written. He didn't address recent gun violence or the growing call for gun safety.

“Let me be clear. I support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Second Amendment is part of it,” Zinke said. “The Second Amendment to me is non-negotiable, just like the rest of the Constitution. If you want to change the Constitution, change it, but unless you do, the Constitution stands as written.”

Tranel said she supported the Second Amendment and, having grown up in eastern Montana, she knows the role gun culture plays in the state.

However, she said voters in Montana's new congressional district support “common-sense” solutions to curb gun violence.

“I know and understand the Montana gun culture. I've lived it. I also understand how important it is for our teachers and our children to be safe,” Tranel said.

“Very conservative voters here in Montana support longer background checks. Very conservative voters here across this district support red-flag laws. As a representative of this district, I will do the work of the people of this district to support those polices that I've been told by the voters here they support.”

Libertarian John Lamb.
Libertarian John Lamb.

The candidates were also questioned on the role the federal government can play to address housing, childcare and mental health.

Zinke said he supported such federal programs as food stamps, saying it helps feed kids who don't have a good family unit and may not get nutrition anywhere else.

But he also said states have solutions of their own and sometimes the federal government gets in the way. He said inflation is driving up the cost of housing, and the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act doesn't help.

“If you talk to the builders, they're having a tough time getting the permit. This is where the federal government can introduce lower-cost loans to incentivize building, but you've got to get the cost per unit down,” Zinke said.

“You have to bring energy costs down, and you have to bring inflation down, which means you have to curb spending, and you've got to fix our supply chain,” he added. “It would be nice to be able to get back in the woods and actually cut a tree in Montana and actually have some supply. If you do that, and we lower the interest rates, then people can actually afford a house or an apartment.”

On the housing front, Tranel said she's heard across many counties that VRBO's should be regulated, and that housing should be owner-occupied. She also said the federal government can partner with local communities to provide affordable child-care, early childhood education and restore the child tax credit.

She would also support the Mental Health Parity Act.

“We need to help our working families, so they don't eat up an entire salary by paying for childcare just to go to work,” Tranel said. “The child tax credit, affordable childcare and making sure we have pre-K childhood education – I will partner with you to make sure our federal dollars are going to those kinds of resources.”